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Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)
Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

Human Rights

Memory becomes a minefield at Canada's Museum for Human Rights Add to ...

The person taking that phone call at the CMHR will not be Gail Asper. Still a member of the board, and its most enthusiastic fundraiser, Ms. Asper no longer officially speaks for the museum.

The new voice of the CMHR is Stuart Murray, who was named president and CEO by the Prime Minister in 2009. He has no background in human rights or museums, but he was the leader of the Conservative Party of Manitoba from 2000 to 2006.

Mr. Murray says the board hasn't really discussed how it will navigate through those potentially choppy waters, but he fully expects that “controversy will be the first person to come to our door every day in this museum.” Two years before those doors even open, trouble has already arrived.

A Tower of Babel

In 2009, the museum established a content advisory committee comprising primarily human-rights lawyers and activists. They were asked to report back about what Canadians wanted to see in a human-rights museum. And they were looking for stories for a museum where stories will be the primary artifacts.

From May, 2009, to February 2010, the committee travelled to every province and territory, hearing from thousands of people, collecting stories about human-rights abuses in Canada and elsewhere, and gathering suggestions about the museum.

In an age when “tell us your story” has become the mantra of every media outlet and public institution, and in a country where multiculturalism requires that every story be treated with equal reverence and respect, it was probably inevitable that the museum needed to “talk to Canadians.” But many critics argue that this was an ill-advised initiative, and sowed the seeds for many of the museum's current difficulties. The committee collected stories, ranging from the tragic – Holocaust and residential-school survivors – to the trivial. One woman told of her sadness when she was unable to fulfill her dream of joining the Girl Guides because her parents couldn't afford the uniform. The lesson: Poverty can also be a violation of human rights.

The final report ran to nearly 100 pages of highly empathetic and politically correct rhetoric, and offered 48 recommendations for museum officials to consider.

The museum insists that the committee report is just one of many inputs that it will consider when determining what will be on display and how it will be organized, but historian Michael Marrus believes the museum made a mistake by asking Canadians to tell them what they wanted a human-rights museum to be.

Sitting in his office at the University of Toronto's Massey College, where he is an emeritus professor of Holocaust studies, Prof. Marrus argues that “before you go coast to coast, you have to have a more coherent sense of what you are about, what you are looking for.”

He doesn't believe the museum's grievance caravan served any real purpose. “People want to tell their stories: ‘How we suffered.' ‘How our community suffered.' ‘You have no idea how we suffered.' ‘Let me tell you how we suffered.' Where does this lead except to a sort of Tower of Babel collection of stories that don't necessarily cohere with one another, that don't have some kind of common thread that will be reflected in the museum?”

Prof. Marrus appeared before the advisory committee, but it appears his advice was not heeded. “I told them, ‘You are asking for trouble because you have no way, once you have collected all these stories, of determining which ones you want to represent. How do you tell someone that their story isn't going to be as important as someone else's story?' ”

Bitter fight

Of all the advisory committee's recommendations, none has proved more controversial than its suggestion that “the museum should position the Holocaust as a separate zone at the centre of the museum, showing the centrality of the Holocaust in the overall human-rights story.”

And yet no recommendation was more predictable. A human-rights museum without a Holocaust gallery would not have been true to Izzy Asper's original vision, and much of the early private fundraising was done under the assumption that the Holocaust would be prominently featured. The problem, as Prof. Marrus predicted, is that other groups with compelling stories want equal billing, especially in a national publicly funded museum. At the head of that line are groups representing the Ukrainian-Canadian community.

In many ways, it's a dispute whose roots go back to the end of the Second World War, when the Canadian government allowed hundreds of veterans of the notorious Ukrainian Galician Division of the Waffen SS to emigrate to Canada. They had been interned and investigated for war crimes by the British government after the war, but were eventually released. Still, the Jewish community in Canada opposed the move, arguing that many division members were responsible for the slaughter of Jews.

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